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VIETNAM: My Experiences by Geoff Oldman

31 Jul 12
Peter Bull
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1 How I became involved in Vietnam.

I was an engineer with OTC (Overseas Telecommunications Corporation) from 1973 to 1994 when I retired. From 1985 I worked as the Project Manager in charge of a number of projects most of which were offshore; mainly in Vietnam and Malta as well as Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam was both OTC’s and my first venture into Foreign construction projects. Factors which led to the decision to get involved in the Vietnam project included:

– OTC’s General Manager, George Maltby, was keen to expand our strong reputation in International Communications into Consulting and Construction areas.
– The Australian Ambassador to Vietnam saw the need for modern communications from Vietnam as essential to that country’s recovery from the war, and subsequent trade sanctions.
– Vietnam was keen to re-establish trading relations with the west, and saw good communications as being essential.
– DFaT was very supportive.

When offered the position of Project Manager for Vietnam I jumped at it.
My first trip was as head of the team to negotiate the contract, in Ha Noi, and to gather technical information, in Ho Chi Minh City, (which I will as the locals still do, call Saigon). OTC senior management’s last briefing comment was to “get the best deal you can” which I interpreted to mean that we were expected to come back with a contract. The delegation consisted of; a technical expert, Dave Wicks; a marketing expert, Brian Curran; an ex-member of DFaT whose name I will not mention because of his subsequent notoriety but who nevertheless proved invaluable as he had been two IC in Hanoi before joining OTC; and myself.

Although OTC was installing ES’s in Antarctica and Xmas Island the Vietnam project was a ‘first’ in that it was in a foreign, communist, non English speaking country.

However, I was keen and when I met my opposite number in Vietnam I felt very comfortable…. he was my size !

2 First Impressions

We didn’t realise it then but the flight from Bang Kock to Ha Noi gave us a good indication of what to expect

As we waited in the departure lounge to board the Air Vietnam aircraft, a Russian Tupolov 132, which stood about 50 metres from the glass doors of the departure lounge, our expert from DFaT ushered us to the front of the crowd milling around the locked doors.

When boarding was announced the doors opened and we were swept up in a most undignified stampede of sometimes aging and portly officials running the 50 metres to the aircraft, constantly being encouraged to run faster by our one experienced member. The reason was clear when we got into the aircraft.

Many of the seats had minimal or no padding, sometimes the backs were falling onto the following seats. First in got the good seats. Luggage was piled inside the entrance door without any restraint and the carpet down the aisle was worn through to the aluminium deck. Naturally this did nothing to bolster my confidence. However, while the plane was very underpowered by western standards and took forever to actually get off the ground; once in the air all went well and the pilot got us down to a perfect landing at Hanoi.

In Ha Noi there was very little sign that the country had been through two major wars in the previous 30 years. On approach to Ha Noi we could see a few strings of bomb craters in the paddy fields and in Ha Noi the bridge over the Red River had been bombed and the destroyed spans replaced by military style “Bailey” bridges. These spans are still there. I checked satellite photographs on Google Earth yesterday.

Everything was seriously in need of renewal and maintenance. The degree of decay had to be seen to be believed. When we got to Saigon the situation was better but still very run down.

3 Accommodation.

When I first visited Vietnam the only Europeans in Hanoi were Embassy staff and in Saigon, one or two who had stayed on with their Vietnamese families after the war, and the very rare businessman trying to develop import/export business. We met one of the expats in Saigon when he heard we were in town and decided to organise a birthday party for himself. Fortunately, none of us needed to drive home.

Consequently there was very little call for Western Quality Accommodation. Only one hotel in Ha Noi and one in Saigon made any attempt at all to supply this market. The Thong Ngat in Ha Noi was built by the architect of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. During the early 1900’s it was a magnificent building in keeping with the Opera House and many other buildings from that era in Ha Noi. Ha Noi was known as the “Jewel” or the “Pearl of the Orient”. The French architecture and landscaping, while in 1986 terribly decayed were clearly magnificent when new. An artificial lake of some 10 to 20 hectares with surrounding gardens in the centre of Ha Noi had deteriated essentially to a cess pool.

A little story about the Thong Ngat. Early in 1987 my wife, Colleen travelled with me to Vietnam – her visit is a story in itself – and we stayed in the Thong Ngat. There was no hot water in our room – well suite actually – and sometimes no water at all. Hotel staff kept promising to fix it but to no avail. After several days of cold showers we were reluctantly accepting that any improvement was unlikely. Until one day I arrived back from a meeting in mid afternoon to find that there was hot water. I yelled to Colleen and we could not strip off fast enough to get our first hot shower for several days. How it happened I don’t know but the hot water came out of the “cold” tap and after about 30 minutes disappeared never to return on that visit.

Saigon has been a more commercial and utilitarian city and this is reflected in the buildings – less decayed as the South was a productive economy until 1975. In Saigon I stayed in the Ben Than. For any of you who may have been in Saigon before 1975 it was then known as the Rex. Despite being operated by the Communist Regime since 1975 the large decorative Crown was still on the lobby wall with its outlining lights still switched on. This hotel was known for its practice of placing small flags of the countries of the diners on their tables in the dining room. When Colleen and I were there they found Australian and New Zealand flags to continue the tradition for us.

4 The People

Most of the people I worked with were well educated and capable – and were excellent and tough negotiators, always looking for that little bit extra. However, once agreement was reached they carried out their side of the deal meticulously. My opposite number was a northerner who spoke Vietnamese, French and German but no English. The director Foreign Relations of the Vietnamese Communications Department was Madam Nga, a fascinating lady. She had fought in the hills with Ho Chi Minh as an 18 year old. After the French were defeated she was sent to Moscow to study engineering. She spoke 7 languages fluently including English and on many occasions was able to discretely correct the interpreters. OTC organised for her to visit Sydney and Colleen and I were able to have her to dinner at our house in Epping.

Vietnam was an absolute economic basket case in 1986 and children would frequently beg from the foreigners. The adults, particularly the men, were very much down on this and would chase the children away if they saw any begging. Nevertheless we used to give any spare cash or small notes we had to the children when the opportunity arose. One story in particular comes to mind. In Saigon there were many Eurasian street kids abandoned by their fathers when the war ended. One of these, a bright little fellow of about 11 years old, who I will call Harry, was attracted to me and each time I came to Saigon he would appear and want to chat with me. He walked with a limp and had one arm that dangled awkwardly because of polio but this in no way detracted from his bubbling and friendly personality. More about him later. Needless to say these kids always got any spare cash that I had.

Also in Saigon I was fortunate enough to meet Madam Di. Again any of you who have been in Vietnam may have heard of Madam Di. She was widely known for the quality of a restaurant she owned before 1975. I met her through our ex DFaT member who took us to her, then much smaller restaurant; it was one room in the house where she and many other Vietnamese lived. We had an excellent meal of steak with French Wine. Lord knows how she got it. It could be because she frequently hosted dinners for members of the Government.

While in Ha Noi on my first visit the Australian Ambassador hosted a dinner for both the negotiating teams and selected members of the Vietnamese Government. That was where I met Mr. Wang. Over coffee and port I was talking to Mr Wang who was the Vietnamese Finance Minister and he was expansively and surprisingly openly criticising the Vietnamese Government and the Communist System. Although there were no other government officials within earshot I had visions of him being taken away and shot the next day. Later I told our ex DFaT member about my discussion with Wang. He said no problems and told me Wang was:
– From the South;
– Married to an Indian film star who had acted in one of the early Bond films;
– Had been Finance Minister for the South before 1975;
– Was a past President of the World Bank; and
– Was very good at his job.
Consequently his intransigence was tolerated provided he was reasonably discrete and in any case if he became too much of a problem the Gov’t would simply pension him off as he was in his seventies at that time. Did I mention that the Vietnamese are a very pragmatic people?.

5 Conclusion

I feel privileged to have been involved in the start of an economic revolution in Vietnam. The Satellite Earth Station in Saigon that I Project Managed was noted for:
– providing the first modern communications to the West since 1975;
– its first 4 voice channels were fully occupied 24 hrs/day from switch-on;
– within 3 months capacity had been expanded to 12 channels;
– within 6 months capacity was up to 24 channels;
– within 12 months capacity was up to 48 channels;
– within 2 years a second ES was planned for Saigon and as well as a new ES in Ha Noi.

From 1986 to 1990 I saw:
– bicycles largely replaced by motor cycles in Saigon,
– beginnings of the same change in Ha Noi;
– Vietnam had moved from a net importer of food to an exporter;
– development of coal mines in the north by Joint Venture Aust. companies;
– development of offshore oil exploration by Joint Venture Aust. Companies;
– development of a fish export business by Joint Venture Aust. Companies;
– the tourist industry beginning to boom.

This economic revolution was, I believe, largely due to the pragmatism of the Vietnamese Government in turning a blind eye to capitalistic type development in the South and a “Can Do” attitude of the Vietnamese people.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the rest of the story about my little Eurasian friend, Harry. It was after I had seen Harry several times that he asked me in broken English if I could get him some soap. I said I didn’t have any and why did he want it? He said “to get the nits out of his hair”. He also suggested that “I could get some from the hotel room”. I was on my way to a meeting and told him to meet me next day. Next day Harry is no where to be seen but immediately I walk out of the Hotel a tall Eurasian girl of about 14 years old approaches and by imitating her brother’s limp and swinging arm (presumably from Harry having contracted polio) indicates she has been sent to get the soap. A couple of days later Harry appears again thanking me for the soap and apologising in broken English for not coming himself. I asked where was he?. He says he was at Madam Di’s. This surprised me as why would a proprietor of an up market restaurant have any interest in a Street Kid. ……. Harry said she runs a school for Street Kids teaching English and Mathematics.

Just to round this off I should tell you that the deal that OTC negotiated with the Vietnamese cost the Vietnamese nothing except the commitment to route their traffic through Australia for five years. By virtue of the peculiarities of International Communications Traffic Accounting this generated very substantial cash flows to Vietnam, and, needless to say, it was extremely profitable to OTC. And hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in Canada, USA, France, and of course Australia were able to talk to their families in Vietnam.

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